How to become a successful writer of multiple genres
February 6, 2023
Screenwriters frequently get mixed advice.
Who hasn’t heard that they should “write what they know” by one expert only to be told that they should write commercially-viable stories from another? When writing their script, you may hear that one Oscar-winning screenwriter has a wall of notecards they work off of while another one just uses a Word document to outline.
There’s a lot of advice out there but one in particular is the following: pick a genre and stick with it.
On the surface this makes sense. If you’re an expert in horror then you can become a go-to horror writer and have a thriving career.
But writers tend to move between genres. One example is Peter Farrelly who, along with his brother, wrote outrageous comedies in the 1990s such as Dumb & Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. But a few years ago, Farrelly wrote and directed the Oscar-winning drama The Green Book.
Screenwriters can work in more than one genre and have a successful, thriving career.
Barbara Kymlicka has nearly 70 writing credits over the course of the last 15 years between two seemingly different genres: thriller and romantic-comedy. In fact, in 2020, she had seven movies produced, three were thrillers and four were rom-coms.
It may seem difficult to bounce between genres but the way that a writer like Kymlicka tackles her projects can show you how to become a successful multi-genre screenwriter.
Writing process for thrillers and comedies
Kymlicka isn’t a spec writer, she’s hired to write movies. Over the years she has established rapport with several producers and is generally either asked to pitch an idea or is tasked with taking a producer’s concept and fleshing it out.
For thrillers, once the idea is approved she starts her writing process by watching a bunch of similar films in that subject matter. For instance, if the plot revolves around child abduction, she will watch the best movies about that subject for inspiration and to get into the right mindset.
Before she starts writing the screenplay, she has to know where the story is going. Kymlicka will write a two-page breakdown, then long form treatment of how the movie is going to play out, act by act, scene by scene and also include some dialogue as she begins to hear her characters speak. The treatment can range anywhere between 12-25 pages depending on how detailed she wants it.
Then she writes the first draft.
For romantic comedies, her process varies in some respects. For one, she usually doesn’t need to get into that headspace. Also, romantic comedies are more formulaic especially is you’re working with a company like Hallmark. Where thrillers and rom-coms differ for Kymlicka is finding the moments within the story that make it more relatable to the viewer. Rom-coms, especially Christmas-themed, are plentiful (Hallmark alone premiered 43 new Christmas movies in 2022) so it’s critical to meet the challenge of finding ways to write an original film with a proven formula that is also unique.
If Kymlicka is writing a Christmas romantic comedy (she’s written 15+) then she hits Google and searches for every kind of winter activity and Christmas event that might fit into the story between the required hot cocoa and cookie decorating scenes. She does the same for other rom-coms in other seasons and holidays, i.e. summer or Halloween activities.
Even with comedy, Kymlicka sticks with her tried-and-true two-page breakdown and long-form treatment.
For made-for-TV movies, the turnaround is tight. Kymlicka shared that she will write a script anywhere between 10 days and four weeks. Once the idea is approved, the movie is shooting within 2-3 months.
Comedy is subjective, so how do you determine if something is funny? It seems easier to figure out for a thriller what might scare people or cause tension – stories are plentiful when they can be ‘ripped from the headlines’. But comedy feels more instinctual — either you’re funny or you’re not. Only that’s not true though.
The Court Jester was the one person in the kingdom who could make fun of royalty without getting arrested. They held up a mirror to society and commented on it in a comedic way. The best humor comes from observation.
But what kind of observations that cause laughter will depend on the audience.
Let’s focus on the Hallmark audience. This is a specific type of light-hearted comedy and the company shies away from anything too cartoonish, slapstick or overt and prefer comedy stemming from something steeped in real life experiences. It comes down to relatability.
Kymlicka shares, “You want to create characters that everyone can relate to, whether it’s the lead or supporting. The obstacles that your characters encounter along the way have that comedic feel behind it.”
The goal is to find the moments where the viewer will see themselves in the same or a similar position. Comedy isn’t always about making people laugh out loud either, but rather providing a moment that causes someone to smile.
If you’re a thriller writer eager to branch out to comedy, you’ll have transferable skills.
Any story will have a protagonist leading toward a goal and the antagonist getting in the way. Whether you’re writing a thriller, romantic comedy or hard-hitting drama, your character development is the same. You’re telling a human story so you have to ensure your audience understands the characters and why they make the choices they do.
Building a Writing Career
How do you become a prolific writer of multiple genres like Barbara Kymlicka?
Write a lot.
It’s cliché but true.
Kymlicka recalls knowing a lot of aspiring writers, even some teaching me the craft, who had written 1-3 scripts and had been shopping them around for over 10 years.
Writers fall in love with their work but at some point you have to move on.
When Kymlicka started her writing career she just so happened to create three samples: a thriller, a romantic comedy and a period drama, which was her favorite genre. It’s important to write what you’re passionate about but you have to look at what’s getting made commercially and keep writing for those genres so you can make a living being a writer.
Once you’re making a living then you can write your passion project on the side and have a better chance getting them through because now you have established connections.
Right now, the Christmas franchise is massive. So, if you’re a thriller writer trying to work your way into comedy, that might be a good start. Don’t make it something we’ve seen a million times though. Find the twist on the genre that will help you stand out.
For thriller writers looking to move into another genre, like comedy, don’t put pressure on yourself to make it perfect. Give yourself room to learn, grow and test what works for you. Start with the same relatable characters you create for your stories and find the moments that cause that smile.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman is an award-winning, optioned screenwriter. He was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019 and won Best Action/Adventure in Script Summit’s Screenplay Competition in 2021. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.